Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unfit to Rule: After Me the Deluge

The phrase (attributed to Louis XVth and refering to a flood, storm, or political disorder) is usually interpreted to mean "If you think I was bad, wait until you see what is coming." Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, known more for bluster and buffoonery than for memorable contributions to society, has definitely been channeling his inner Louis XVth of late.

In the multiple populist uprisings currently ricocheting across the Middle East and North Africa, Libya's scenario has got to be the worst, and the most grotesque. With his universe of ineffable gaudiness now under siege and blood everywhere in the streets, Moammar Qadaffi has offered the Libyan people a deathlike embrace: "I am a warrior. I am not going to leave this land, and I will die here as a martyr."

This is a man who travels everywhere with a luxury tent (which he once pitched on the White House lawn), and whose bodyguards are all women. His normally constant companion and confidante, a Ukranian nurse, has recently fled his side for the safety of her home town, Kiev. In Qaddafi, according to Bobby Ghosh in Time magazine, "the Arab youth revolution faces a foe unafraid to push back brutally--and the watching world sees a ruler immune to reproach or reason." Today Qaddafi is a caged tiger trapped in his own palace, issuing orders to paid militias to shoot at random into protesting crowds, and making incoherent speeches about how much his people love him.

Years ago when I still lived in London, I was friends with the painter Francis Bacon, a man who championed colorful eccentricity and outrageousness. Asked once by an interviewer who, among the world's most famous people, he would choose to spend a night with if he could, Bacon sent shock waves across Britain when he unhesitatingly replied, "Muammar Qaddafi." Remembering this story now, I can only wonder, if Bacon were alive today, whether he would still give the same answer.

Each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, says Steve Coll (paraphrasing Tolstoy), but surely having a national leader whose long-term derangement has escalated up the ladder to delusional insanity beyond reclaim, must be a source of monstrous horror for the Libyan people. Commentators on the scene have described being reminded of the last mad days of Hitler, hiding out in his bunker. "Can't repeat the past!" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" History has an inbuilt preposterousness and its own self-reflexive arc.

Meanwhile pundits around the world are on edge, chewing over the question of whether or not the Arab world is ready for freedom, concerned that revolutions can result in worse tyrannies than the ones they overthrow. A scarcity of democratic institutions in that part of the world--especially in the case of Libya--and the potential for protracted violence, has elicited fear, skepticism, and exhilaration in equal measure, depending on where you look or who you are listening to. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (who spent weeks live-blogging from Tahrir Square) tackled the issue head-on in his regular column on Sunday. "Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?" he asked. And then, holding the victory banner high, he gave his answer:

"The common thread of this year's democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage....I've been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I've seen--defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?...The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through...I'm awed by the courage I see, and it's condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren't ready for it."

Kristof claims that he is feeling more hopeful about the world than at any time since 2001. And he credits "Obamaism"--i.e. its themes of nonviolence, youth-driven social media as engines of change and limiters of autocratic brutality, and the universality of rights as listed in his post-presidential speech in Cairo--for having planted fertile seeds that took root in what is happening now. In June 2009, Obama declared in Cairo: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

I've got both fingers and toes crossed that Nik Kristof is right: that young people in the Middle East are going to succeed at overthrowing decades of oppressive autocracy. I'm on an email list that sends inspirational quotes by Andrew Cohen once a week, and this week's quote seems synchronistically relevant:

Breaking through Gravity:
"A human being trying to catalyze the emergence of a higher level of consciousness is like a rocket ship trying to break through the gravity of the Earth's atmosphere. The gravity that we are endeavoring to release ourselves from is the historical weight of our conditioning, both personal and cultural. If we can generate enough vertical momentum to propel us beyond the boundaries of who we have been, we will find ourselves in uncharted territory."

Let's all hope the rocket ship of revolution makes it through the gravity of oppression and fulfills its mission of liberation. A lot is hanging on the outcome.

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